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COLUMBIA — Driving north on U.S. 63, the scenery in Missouri's new 44th House district changes quickly as one leaves Columbia. Homes disappear in the rearview mirror. Diamond interchanges lined with restaurants, big-box stores and other businesses give way to the crimson and gold autumn trees and the rural countryside of Boone County.
Not far up the road, though, is the city of Hallsville, what Mayor Cheri Reisch calls a "bedroom community of Columbia." Small, picturesque houses — many with plump pumpkins on the porch — line the streets. Hallsville is a growing town, but it's still just a little north of 1,000 people.
Cats Kitchen, a small restaurant at the edge of town, plays host to lots of locals who come in for breakfast most mornings. Photographs of athletes from Hallsville High School fill the walls. Families and other groups of customers, most of them men dressed in overalls, boots and ball caps, dine on bacon and eggs. They exchange local gossip and talk about their farms and their cattle in what they call a daily "roundtable discussion." A waitress chats with well-known guests as she moves from table to table. An unrecognized outsider attracts quizzical glances.
Reisch said Hallsville is a conservative, "church-going" community. She's only been mayor since April, but she's lived in the town all her life.
"Hallsville is a very wholesome community," she said. "It is very family oriented, and parents are active in their children's lives."
Reisch said she believes most voters in northern Boone County will lean more conservative in the upcoming election, in which Democrat Ken Jacob and Republican Caleb Rowden are competing to represent the 44th District. The new district, a product of boundary changes that occurred in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Census, includes large swaths of unincorporated Boone County along with Hallsville, Centralia and Sturgeon. It reaches north into Randolph County to include the small village of Clark.
It also encompasses a significant chunk of north and east Columbia.
After Columbia, Centralia is the largest town in the district, with a population of about 4,000. The town center, with its lush green lawn and white gazebo, looks like a scene out of a classic film.
On the city's website, Mayor Tim Grenke boasts of Centralia's amenities. It's a "dynamic community," he writes, home to parks, a new recreation center and Hubbell Power Systems. Hubbell used to be known as the A.B. Chance Co., a primary employer in the town that became famous for inventing and manufacturing earth anchors that help keep utility poles in place.
Grenke said in an interview that Centralia also enjoys a "pretty awesome school district." It has been accredited with distinction in eight of the past 10 years.
JR's Diner on one corner of the town square is one of the main eating establishments. It's a dimly lit diner where owner Jodie Roberts greets guests enthusiastically as she hands out menus. An "Elect Elvis Presley" sign hangs in the window, and the Centralia Panthers football schedule hangs below.
Pat Ward and her husband eat at JR's regularly. Roberts greeted the couple and knew their breakfast order without even asking. Ward immediately lit a cigarette as she settled in to drink her coffee. She wasn't without a smoke for the rest of their visit.
Ward has lived in Centralia most of her life.
"I like this town, but you can't buy anything," she said. "There's not a place to buy women's clothes, and you can't really get what you need unless it's at the lumber yard or a hardware store."
Ward said Centralia encourages residents to "shop Centralia." Still, she has to go out of town for most things.
The Wards believe Centralia is a good town, even though it's a hard place for small businesses. And other than Hubbell, there aren't a lot of big employers.
"We can't get any industry," Ward said. "I know a lot of people who aren't working because they can't find anything but part-time jobs, which offer no benefits. In this town, getting a job depends on who you know."
"I'd like to see a factory," she said, "but I know this town isn't big enough for another factory."
Ward lit another cigarette as she brought up Proposition B, which appears on the Nov. 6 ballot. The measure calls for an increase in Missouri's tax on tobacco products. The increase on a pack of name-brand cigarettes would be 73 cents. The money is intended to fund education and smoking-cessation programs.
"Proposition B is discriminating against smokers," Ward said. "It's my right, and I'm not just saying that because I smoke like a steam engine."
Just as Reischsaid of Hallsville, the mayor of Centralia said his city trends toward the conservative side.
"There is big support for Caleb Rowden in the community," Grenke said, adding that Rowden has attended economic development meetings in Centralia. Both Rowden and Jacob have attended candidate forums there.
West of Centralia, and toward the northern tip of the 44th, are Sturgeon and Clark. These are among the smaller towns in the district, with populations of about 800 and 300, respectively.
Sturgeon takes its name from Isaac Sturgeon, who was president of the North Missouri Railroad Co. when Sturgeon was settled along its tracks in 1856, according to the town website. Although Mayor Gene Kelly says Sturgeon has begun growing again in recent years, there was a sense of emptiness on a recent autumn day. Small houses line the windy road that leads to the town center, where the hardware store and the antique shop are closed. The railroad still runs through the middle of town, and the Casey's General Store is one of the main businesses.
Kelly said the growth is slow but steady in town. The recession hit here like just about everywhere else. Some residents lost their homes to foreclosure, but many of those houses have been repurchased.
"I'm glad I live here," he said. "It's a nice community."
On the outskirts of Clark, which lies just north of the Randolph County line, large farm houses dot the landscape, which is mostly devoid of cars. A bright blue building serves as the Clark City Hall, and gravel roads split off the main street.
The 44th District also contains a large part of northeastern Columbia, including the commercial and industrial corridor along Route B and several neighborhoods that are home to a majority of 44th District residents. It encompasses the stretch of Clark Lane that features convenience stores, fast food outlets, a Home Depot and the Golden Corral.
The district's southern border is St. Charles Road, the street that Jacob lives on. It runs northeast from Broadway toward an intersection with Interstate 70. Along the way, St. Charles in a sense is a microcosm of the larger 44th District. Some homes sit on tracts of multiple acres. But the road also leads to subdivisions like Eastland Hills.
One of the Columbia neighborhoods included in the 44th is Hominy Branch, a tangle of small streets north of Clark Lane and east of Ballenger Lane that lead to clusters of middle-class homes. Many are occupied by first-time homebuyers and empty-nesters.
Karl Skala, a former Third Ward councilman who continues to be active in Columbia affairs, is head of the Hominy Branch Neighborhood Association. The core group of residents, he said, are people who have been there for a while. He said that based on the political signs in his neighborhood, there seems to be an even split between liberals and conservatives.
Skala said crime is an issue at the top of the list for many residents of the neighborhood. Infrastructure, particularly good roads, is also important to the folks who live there.
Skala said recession hit his neighborhood hard, so jobs are obviously important as well.
What sort of representative do they want in Jefferson City? "There is a responsibility for being open and accountable," Skala said.
"People want an advocate that delivers on promises," he added. "Anybody would want to be pro job, but how are you going to do this?"
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.